AMU Homeland Security Intelligence Law Enforcement Public Safety Terrorism

Domestic Terrorism: Determining the Scope of Localized Threats

By Nicole Burtchett
Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Since the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 (9/11), the United States government and its citizens have become hyper-vigilant in defending against foreign-born terrorist organizations. Since 9/11, a number of counterterrorism policies and outreach activities have been devised to help curb the threat stemming from these groups. While the United States has made great strides in promoting awareness and defending against foreign-terrorist organizations, according to a recent Congressional Research Service Report (CRS), U.S. efforts to curb threats posed by domestic terrorist organizations and individuals has lacked focus and a clear sense of scope.

Terrorist activity isn’t exclusive to groups originating from outside of the United States. To balance its counterterrorism efforts in the international arena, the United States should be working toward a more organized effort to thwart threats stemming from home-grown terrorists and extremists. Domestic terrorists have wide-ranging ideologies on both the left and the right.

Examples of groups noted in the CRS report that are thought to threaten the lives and property of U.S. citizens include but are not limited to:

  • Animal and environmental rights groups
  • White supremacists organizations, black separatists, and other hate-based groups
  • Anarchists and anti-government militias

Examples of domestic terrorism include Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. This incident resulted in the second largest number of casualties on U.S. soil behind that of 9/11. Other groups and individuals that have posed a threat to the U.S. and its citizens include Larry Wayne Harris who made threats of using crop dusters filled with biological weapons; the Minnesota Patriots Council that targeted government officials with ricin, a toxic substance extracted from castor beans; and the Animal Liberation Front, a group known to conduct fire bombings and other acts of violence against businesses and researchers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released its annual report, “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” which focuses on the number of hate groups and domestic-terrorism organizations in the U.S. The report found that in 2012, the number of militia groups fell slightly from 334 to 321. However, the number of antigovernment “Patriot” groups rose fairly significantly from 1274 in 2011 to 1360 in 2012. [Check out a previous blog for more details about this report.]

Currently, the U.S. government does not maintain a public list specific to domestic terrorist organizations similar to the U.S. State Department Foreign Terrorist Organization designation list or the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Group list. The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center maintains a non-public list of those known or suspected to be involved in terrorist activity. Therefore, interest groups have been forced to maintain databases built upon open source intelligence that help monitor the activities of threatening organizations.

One reason for the lack of an official government list, as noted in the CRS Report, is largely due to concerns over the need to protect First Amendment rights including freedom of speech and freedom of expression.  In addition, the lack of a clear definition of domestic terrorism has further complicated efforts to collect information on the amount of violent activity being carried out by domestic terrorism organizations.

Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military general and philosopher, teaches us in The Art of War that “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.” If we are to take Sun Tzu’s teachings to heart, in order to know our enemy we first need to find out what we’re dealing with. In determining the scope of the threat from domestic terrorism this means we need to first develop a workable definition that allows for the classification of these groups.  Once we have a classification method in place we can then begin to more fully understand the scope of domestic terrorism activity within the United States. 

About the Author:
Nicole Burtchett is an Associate Professor in the Intelligence Studies program within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Dr. Burtchett is an expert on political psychology and security studies as it relates to political leadership and decision-making, group behavior, and weapons of mass destruction. She is currently working to further explore domestic terrorism in the United States and the progress made in the campaign against Eco-terrorism with the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).

Congressional Research Service. 2013. The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress. (R42536, January 17, 2013), by Jerome P. Bjelopera. [accessed February 21, 2013].

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